Amazon.com is crowing that for the first time, its e-book sales volume has surpassed hardcovers. Am I the only one who sees this as an apocalyptic sign for the great pleasure of book reading? Amazon’s basing its assertion on sales figures for the last three months, when buyers were lining their Amazon Kindles with summer beach reading. Amazon chief Jeffrey Bezos marvels that the milestone is more remarkable given that Amazon has only been selling e-books 33 months, as opposed to the 15 years it has been moving hardcovers. A report on the milestone in The New York Times indicates that within the next decade, less than 25% of books sold will be in print.
The lure of e-books is easy to understand: with no trees killed, books come cheaper to consumers, who no longer have to lug around hardcovers when an entire library can be loaded into a single lightweight device. On the cost front, I wonder what will happen when the makers of Kindle and other devices corner the publishing market and are no longer interested in selling its software at loss leader prices so that it can move hardware. That confrontation is inevitable, when more brick and mortar stores vanish.
My biggest problem–and the reason I’ll always stick to print books–is that I think the entire experience of reading a books is cheapened by technology, same as it was in music. Young people don’t become invested in musical artists the way I did when I bought vinyl albums, savored the cover art and gave every song a chance (my kids pay a buck to download hits only and don’t care about an artist’s progression). Future generations of readers won’t value the ritual experience of buying a book, appreciating its distinctive smell and formative heft, earning the way to the end, page by page, and then displaying the best ones like trophies on a shelf.
Now, the whole business of publishing is changing. More and more authors like James Patterson are co-writing novels. That’s made them more prolific and wealthy, but it doesn’t mean their books are better. Tom Clancy is taking this a step further this fall with the fall publication of Dead or Alive, a Jack Ryan thriller. All of the big authors write their signature franchise character books solo–Patterson works alone on his Alex Cross mysteries–Clancy wrote the Jack Ryan book with frequent collaborator Grant Blackwood. While other authors continued Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series and even Mario Puzo’s The Godfather characters, it’s only because those authors are dead. What’s Clancy’s excuse? I see it as another step in the wrong direction.
As for e-books, I’ll give the last word to Elmore Leonard, who’s still cranking out his customary 3 to 4 pages each day from 10-6, even as he prepares to turn 85. “To me, a book is a book, an electronic device is not, and love of books was the reason I started writing,” Leonard told me recently. “I don’t have a word processor, e-mail, any of that stuff. I write in longhand mostly, then put it on my typewriter as I go along. I don’t have any interest in any of that electronic stuff, but I’m going on 85, and won’t have to worry about it too much longer.”
What about the rest of us, Elmore?